Google is working to make it easier for callers to share details with 911 responders in the event of an emergency. In a blog post this morning, the tech giant announced a feature heading to select Android devices that will allow users to provide information about the assistance they require — and their location — to operators silently.
Google says the feature will become available in the U.S. in the coming months starting with Pixel smartphones via the Phone app.
“A quick, informative conversation with an operator during an emergency call is critical, but in some cases, people are unable to verbally communicate, whether they’re injured, in a dangerous situation or have a speech impairment,” wrote product manager Paul Dunlop. “We’ve been collecting feedback from public safety organizations, including the National Emergency Number Association, to make this feature as helpful as possible.”
To this end, the new tool offers three buttons — Medical, Fire, or Police — that convey during a call the nature of the emergency to an operator through an automated voice service. Said service works on-device, meaning the information isn’t processed in a remote datacenter and doesn’t require a data connection, and it enables callers to optionally speak directly with operators after the service’s activation.
Additionally, the voice service provides GPS location data along with a plus code, a short combination of characters indicating the nearest physical address. Google notes that these coordinates exist for any location, even those that lack roads and distinguishable landmarks, and that they stay between callers and emergency services.
The new feature is somewhat in the spirit of — albeit more robust than — text-to-911, a capability that allows emergency call takers to receive text messages from mobile phones or devices. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules require all wireless carriers and other providers in the U.S. to deliver emergency texts to call centers that request them.
Separately, it’s worth noting that Android several years ago adopted services that combine GPS, Wi-Fi, mobile networks, and sensors to transmit precise device location when calling emergency numbers. (Tests in the U.K. indicate the location data is accurate to within 20 meters, a roughly 3,000 times improvement over cell location.) Back in 2016, Google announced support for Advanced Mobile Location (AML), which it implemented as the Android Emergency Location Service (ELS). More recently, the company inked a partnership with technology company RapidSOS, which works to improve U.S.-based emergency centers’ location technologies.
However, standards like AML must be implemented by emergency services and each of the mobile network operators in a country. Verbalized shortcodes get around this limitations. “We look forward to continuing our collaboration with the emergency services community to make people safer,” wrote Dunlop.